Tag Archives: NGOs

Reacting to “the Mess” – Part 2

The scenery on the approach to Goma from the air never disappoints.
The scenery on the approach to Goma from the air never disappoints.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wanted to say in this second part of my reaction to Paul Theroux’s recent article in Barron’s about aid in Africa, a sort of resolution that ties together my thoughts on development. But the truth is, I wrestle with ambivalence on the subject, and struggling to come up with a firm conclusions (or even multiple conclusions) leads me to the same answer I often give when I’m asked what life is like in Africa: It’s complicated.

Even a hardship post isn't all hardship - thanks to Santa Cruz coffee that made the roundtrip from Rwanda through California back to Central Africa.
Even a hardship post isn’t all hardship – thanks to Santa Cruz coffee that made the round trip from Rwanda through California back to Central Africa.

On the one hand, I’m so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to see a few African countries from the ground floor, so to speak, living in small towns and villages and seeing beyond what I’d see if I were just visiting for a short time. Short of up and moving to another country with little or no outside support – following in the footsteps of Livingstone and Stanley and Mungo – working for (or having a spouse who works for) an aid organization provides one of the few opportunities to at least catch a glimpse into the daily lives of fellow human beings. And yet, that seems like a selfish reason to be involved in this sort of work, especially if you’re not sure that you’re helping more than you’re hurting.

Goma is still picking (largely by hand) away at the solidified lava flow from Nyiragongo's eruption in 2002.
Goma is still picking (largely by hand) away at the solidified lava flow from Nyiragongo’s eruption in 2002.

I see the value of small aid projects – ones that build the small savings and lending groups, for example, that Anne-Claire and her colleagues are involved in. On the individual level, it’s not hard to find the results, like the man who stood up at a recent meeting and talked about how the group taught him the value of putting money aside for a rainy day – not a trivial realization when floods or droughts or volcanoes or rebel groups or even your own government’s army can take away everything you have in an instant. But these types of projects aren’t likely to change poverty on a broader scale. What’s more, they don’t generate the kinds of numbers necessary to build a data-driven case for investment – not that data-based development is a bad thing, but more on that in a later post.

But the piles of rubble can be put to use...
But the piles of rubble can be put to use…

I guess the only real conclusion I’ve come to is that communication across culture barriers is rarely a bad thing, and the presence of aid/development organizations facilitates that crosstalk in many ways. The challenge now is to leverage what comes out of those conversations to make for better aid projects. It’s only when the people involved – the “beneficiaries” in aid-speak – are intimately involved in coming up with solutions to poverty.

Houses and walls made of hardened lava were reportedly springing up all over town before the eruption even ended.
Houses and walls made of hardened lava were reportedly springing up all over Goma before the eruption had even ended.

Switching gears a little bit but extending that idea, I came across a new book called Aid on the Edge of Chaos. The thesis is that the best answers might come from not spending so much time designing projects for an intended outcome. Instead, the author argues for giving people a tool and standing back while they figure out the best way to use it. One example given (I haven’t read the book yet) is the installation of community computer terminals connected to the Internet in Indian slums. After dropping these hard-to-come-by objects into certain areas, the project designers were surprised to see children using the Web to teach themselves English. I’m anxious to read the book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you already have.

Lodja's "premier" school - not an easy place to learn.
Lodja’s “premier” school – not an easy place to learn.

Life and Death Statistics, Part 1

Ramatou’s clinic

Niger sits at or near the bottom of every development or economic index we have. The two years I spent in the country left little doubt that literacy rates refuse to break the 30 percent threshold (the proportion of women who can read is around half that), or that malaria, waterborne diseases and malnutrition are pressing problems. But, in my experience at least, it’s rare that these numbers leap from the tables and into real life, as Anne-Claire noticed they have in the last 5 years.

Anne-Claire’s friend Ramatou came to visit us on our second night in Niamey. In the time we’ve been away, she rocketed to the top of her class at the medical school in Niamey, became a midwife, got married, had a son, and has been widowed. Her husband died suddenly two years ago when she was 6 months pregnant. Her son Mohammed, named after his father, is happy and healthy though, and he and Kadija (Issaka’s daughter of the same age) became fast friends.

Not Mohammed’s favorite time of the day

The next day, Issaka was kind enough to drive us to Kollo to visit Ramatou’s mother, who had fed Anne-Claire (and her dog) throughout much of her Peace Corps service. We also visited a health clinic run by an NGO. Ramitou started her career at the government run service in town, but her reputation as a stellar midwife led to her being recruited by the German-run group. I’m no fan of outside groups coming in and taking over basic services like healthcare – in my view, that’s the role of the government, and replacing that service doesn’t free up money to be spent elsewhere. It only liberates government ministers from their responsibilities to the people, helping these “leaders” line their pockets.

But it’s hard to fault someone like Ramatou for taking a better-paying job with more resources at her disposal and a better-trained staff. And the doctors, nurses, midwives, and support staff who work at the clinic are helping individuals – about that, there’s no doubt. Right now, Ramatou is supporting not only herself and Mohammed, but also her mother and her brother (who’s training to be a doctor). Her stepfather has ostensibly abandoned them, saying he was going to Nigeria to look for work.

Relaxing afternoon

We had lunch at Ramitou’s house, then spent the afternoon waiting out the heat and enjoying a relaxing Nigerien afternoon. In the evening, we took a walk through town. We couldn’t go more than a block before running into someone Ramitou had helped or a child she had delivered. Now she’s a resource for the people of Kollo, a sage of sorts. They come to her when their children are sick or if they need medical advice.

Mohammed is a growing boy with an insatiable appetite who doesn’t mind helping himself to a plate of food when it’s in front of him. Thanks to his mother’s status in the town, he was a welcome guest as we walked through the town.

The next day, we took a bush taxi back into Niamey and caught a bus toward Birni N’Gaouré, Anne-Claire’s Peace Corps post. Since we’ve left Niger, the number of bus companies has swollen to perhaps a dozen or more, and one now has hourly departures to Birni (about 2 hours from Niamey) and from there onto the regional capital, Dosso.

Our first piece of business on arriving in Birni was to meet with the wives of the Peace Corps driver for Dosso. Seyni, like most of the drivers, was more than just a chauffeur, helping volunteers deal with problems in their villages and get what they need for projects. Only in his late 40s, Seyni died in February, just after Peace Corps pulled out of Niger.

Safia with her weeks-old daughter

In response, a group of volunteers who worked with Seyni collected some money for his family. It was our job to deliver the second round, totaling about $2,000, to his wives and eleven children, including a daughter born just a few weeks prior. Anne-Claire met with the women, explained that the volunteers wanted the sum to be divided up by the number of children each woman had had, and gracefully tried to express the appreciation the volunteers had for Seyni.

Strong resemblance

His brother Boubacar was there, sporting the same sunglasses and smile his brother always seemed to be wearing. It’s funny how that resemblance brought home the realization that Seyni was gone, first for Anne-Claire, then for me. I didn’t know him well, but in my second year as a regional representative, I had to travel to Niamey frequently, so he and I would cross paths occasionally. He always remembered my name, helped me out whenever I needed a ride, and was always fun to be around.

We exchanged goodbyes with Seyni’s family to choruses of ‘have patience’ and our own stifled sobs. They smiled and, true to form, bore the rememberance of a lost loved one as stoically as they bear most hardships.


Watching the sunset on the beach, we could have easily been on a tropical island somewhere. Lightning flashed far in the distance, and the heavy moist air from the day’s teasing rainstorms settled over the beach, leaving us glistening with sweat in the last light of day.

But this wasn’t just anywhere. This was Senegal. Cows shared the sand with us, and down from where we’d just walked, smoke bellowed from the skyscraping palm trees, as women dried the day’s catch that had just come in on the massive wooden boats.

We’d arrived in Ziguinchor to visit Haroon, one of Anne-Claire’s former classmates. Our second day, he took us to stay at a work colleague’s house on the coast, up near the border with Gambia. Cheikh, the colleague, runs an NGO called Water and Sanitation for West Africa. Over his decades-long career, he’s worked with the World Health Organization, the UN, and now USAID, currently focused on improving sanitation in villages through strategies like hand washing and building latrines – in short, combining behavior change with infrastructure improvements.

Here on the outskirts of Kafountine, Cheikh’s built an oasis of calm with bungalows for visiting friends, solar-powered electricity, and a pack of friendly dogs named after world leaders, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin among them. (Nicholas Sarkozy died recently after being bitten by a cobra.) Cheikh has planted trees on the land with his small personal staff, and both nights we stayed there, we enjoyed walks down to the beach to watch the sunset. The second evening, we watched as a flotilla of massive fishing boats and their crews of 25-30 men each hauled the day’s harvest through the surf.

We ate well, enjoying dishes of fish with fried potatoes, rice and fish sauce, and chicken served with fried bananas. Always accompanying the meal were Cheikh’s stories, detailing his adventures in development. We spent a long time Saturday evening discussing the failures of massive, one-size-fits-all projects and the need to tailor solutions to the cultures they’re designed to work within.

It’s heartening to see a well-educated African, who’s lived and worked all over the world, focus his talents on improving things for other Africans and to see that he doesn’t just accept poverty for his continent. One of my biggest takeaways from Peace Corps is that as outsiders, we’ll never affect real positive change leading the charge in development. We just don’t have the knowledge of the culture, the vested interest and connections to local communities that takes a lifetime to acquire. Outsider-led projects, in my opinion, do little but muck up the situation even further. Best case, we should be supporting folks like Cheikh and taking direction from them as to how we can best help those around us.